The often maligned aspiration for a “Concert of Asia” appears to be even more unlikely this year as Japan and China trade barbs at the UN and spray water cannons at each other over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Meanwhile in Southeast Asia, China has succeeded in fracturing the unity of ASEAN ministers over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. Even though these conflicts are unlikely to lead to war, the disputes matter because they influence whether the region will become increasingly bi-polar or whether an international institution/society will be permitted to develop in order to manage, or ideally “tame and sublimate,” competition between states.
In the broader historical perspective, the current conflicts are relatively minor compared to the confrontations witnessed during the Cold War in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Moreover, in the current situation some states are working to defuse tensions — although no party is blameless. For example, Japan — as a state — continues to act with a measure of restraint, even if some Japanese conservatives see an opportunity for publicity and self-promotion. It is worth noting that Japan immediately expelled, as opposed to detaining and convicting, the Chinese activists from Hong Kong who landed on the disputed islands in mid-August. Japan’s decision to purchase three of the disputed islands from private owners was also an attempt to diffuse bi-lateral tensions by foiling a campaign by the conservative Tokyo Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to purchase the islands for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government through public donations. That Japan may have exacerbated tensions by purchasing the islands directly instead of simply restraining Ishihara could be understood as either a miscalculation or an attempt to finish unpleasant business before China’s leadership transition is consolidated with the hopes of repairing relations once the new administration takes power. Of course, it is understandable why the Chinese would view the entire purchase drama as a “farce” since this was likely the end result desired by Ishihara in the first place. Notably though, ever since the fallout of the nationalization of the islands, Japan has not escalated tensions by bringing in SDF ships.
Ultimately, even if neighboring powers are exploiting the Chinese regime’s weakness during its leadership transition, China is harming its own strategic interests if its bickering or muscle flexing means that regional powers will increasingly ask the US to add more substance to its “pivot” toward Asia. Of course, the situation is still in play and states are not mechanical actors; ASEAN may still be able to manage and regulate the conflict in its neighborhood, China and America are tied together economically, and not all Asian powers will line up behind the US despite their concerns about China. But China is increasingly hemming itself in. As Cheong Suk Wai writes regarding China’s claim to the lion’s share of the South China Sea:
“… China is now in a Catch-22 situation: on the one hand, if it does not fend off claimants, its increasingly nationalistic population will see its leaders as shrinking Chinese territory; on the other, China is party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and its insistence that it owns most of the South China Sea would go against Unclos and anger its neighbours. Either way, China cannot win.” (The Nation [Thailand], 29 September 2012)
China does not have an interest in exacerbating tensions from a strategic or economic vantage point, but its need to distract its domestic population from corruption scandals by fueling nationalist rage may wag the dog. Stated another way, it may be China’s domestic weakness as well as its growing military and economic strength which terminates the prospects for a Concert of Asia and promotes greater regional polarization.